The Jerusalem Syndrome is a term used to describe a mental phenomenon whereby visitors to Jerusalem develop religious delusions, believing that they may be God or a famous person from the Bible. Such individuals have believed themselves to be famous Biblical people such as John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, the Virgin Mary, or even the Messiah. The syndrome only affects members of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with Jews and Christians comprising the majority of cases. The theory was developed by Dr. Yair Bar-El, a former director of the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center in Jerusalem, which has claimed to treat an average of one to two Jerusalem Syndrome patients per month.
A large number of patients with Jerusalem Syndrome have histories of preexisting mental disorders, but not all. According to Bar-El and fellow Kfar Shaul psychiatrist Gregory Katz, many afflicted individuals had no mental disorders prior to their visit to Jerusalem. They arrived completely sane, were touring the city one hour, and the next roaming the desert as John the Baptist in search of converts. Most of these individuals are treated at Kfar Shaul and released within a week, after which they return to normal life without a remaining trace of their religious fantasies.
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Psychiatrists have speculated that perhaps these previously normal people — most of them Protestant Christians from the U.S. — suffer a kind of religious culture shock. The reality that Jerusalem resembles many other modern-day cities, with bustling traffic, business people scurrying to and fro on cell phones, and rampant commercial advertisements, violently conflicts with the individual's idea of an old-time cobblestone city, roamed by citizens in robes and sandals. In response to such irreconcilable ideas, some say their minds suffer a temporary breakdown. Another factor could be that many individuals travel to Jerusalem on a holy pilgrimage, and upon arriving believe and feel they are closer to God than ever before. Such powerful emotions might also lead to strange psychological reactions.
There have, of course, been many cases in which patients developed Jerusalem Syndrome not because of an intense religious experience, but due to a preexisting mental disorder. One man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia developed Jerusalem Syndrome while in the U.S., and traveled to Jerusalem as a result. He was an American bodybuilder who believed himself to be Samson, the Biblical strongman. He traveled to Jerusalem on a delusional holy mission to move part of the Western Wall. Some speculate that David Koresh, the fallen cult leader of the Branch Davidians, had a Messiah complex caused, in part, by a trip to Jerusalem.
While many in the medical community are skeptical of Jerusalem Syndrome's legitimacy, many take it seriously, nowhere more so than in Jerusalem. Tourist guides, security personnel and doctors in Jerusalem all keep a watch for the symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome. Once a person suffering from symptoms has reached the stage of wrapping themselves in white bed sheets and proselytizing in the desert, many doctors are trained to play along with the delusions, so as not to further agitate the patient. With the help of time, medical care, and drugs, the delusion often wears off.
Jerusalem Syndrome isn't the only example of Voyager Syndrome, in which a traveler falls under a temporary and bizarre psychological spell in reaction to a particular location. Many who have traveled to Paris, particularly Japanese tourists, have experienced agitated mental states, and have experienced hallucination, as well as feelings of angst hostility. This has been called the Paris Syndrome, and is thought to be caused by a mixture of travel fatigue and culture shock. There is also the Florence, or Stendhal, Syndrome, where travelers become dizzy, disoriented, and experience hallucinations in response to viewing exquisite Florentine art.